IN March 1993 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that hands out Oscars, decided it was a good time to celebrate women. It wasn’t an original idea: 1992 had been popularly known as the year of the woman in politics, partly because of the number of new women elected to the Senate that year (4!) and the House (24!). Now the academy was joining the fun with the show “Oscar Celebrates Women and the Movies.” The host, Billy Crystal, rose to the occasion with quintessential Hollywood class. “Some of the most-talked-about women’s parts,” he joked, bada-boom, “are Sharon Stone’s in ‘Basic Instinct.’ ”
It should be more difficult for Oscar and his pals to ignore women’s non-pulchritudinous contributions to cinema when the awards roll around this March. Certainly women have been a considerable force this year, whether flocking to “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” in record numbers or helping to turn “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” from an unknown quantity into the most passionately debated women’s picture in memory. Meryl Streep (in “Julie & Julia”) and Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) have scooped up loads of critical love. And Sandra Bullock, at 45, has hit gold with “The Proposal” and, more recently, “The Blind Side,” in which she plays a sexy Christian mother who, from her faith to her high heels and gun, is right out of the Sarah Palin playbook.
“New Moon” and “The Blind Side” might not make a lot of critics’ Top 10 lists, but their popularity with audiences is good for women in film — and might be too great for even Hollywood to ignore. For years the received wisdom, both in the industry and the press that covers it, has been that women don’t go to the movies and can’t open movies. Although recent hits like “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!” have helped put a dent in that thinking, it will take more than millions of teenage girls (and their moms) squealing in delight at sparkly vampires and hairy beasties with swollen deltoids before real change will come to American movie screens. Women need to develop their own muscles.
I’m not talking about those buff babes who pop up in adolescent fantasies, licking their lips as they lock and load; I’m talking about movies made for and with women. I’m also talking about movies directed by women. Here’s a little history: Only three women have been nominated as directors by the academy in 81 years: Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” in 1976; Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993; and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” in 2003. None won. At a glance this year looks promising, with high-profile titles like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Hurt Locker,” Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia,” Lone Scherfig’s “Education” and Ms. Campion’s “Bright Star,” all of which have been too successful, critically and commercially, to dismiss.
Sounds good. Sounds like progress too. Yet the closer you look at the list of female filmmakers from this year, and the more you separate the breathless hype about the better-known “femme-driven pics,” to use a favorite Variety locution, the worse the numbers get. Of the almost 600 new movies that will be reviewed in The New York Times by the end of 2009, about 60 were directed by women, or 10 percent. Some are foreign directors, like Claire Denis (“35 Shots of Rum”) and Lucrecia Martel (“The Headless Woman”); others are documentary filmmakers, including Agnès Varda (“The Beaches of Agnès”) and Aviva Kempner (“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”). Many received modest releases; I bet you never heard about, much less saw, most of them.
Bigger, not surprisingly, doesn’t mean better, at least for women. Only a handful of female directors picked up their paychecks from one of the six major Hollywood studios and their remaining divisions this year: 20th Century Fox had “Jennifer’s Body” (Karyn Kusama) and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” (Betty Thomas), while Fox Searchlight had “Amelia” (Mira Nair), “Post Grad” (Vicky Jenson) and “Whip It” (Drew Barrymore). Anne Fletcher directed “The Proposal” for Disney, while the studio’s once-lustrous division, Miramax Films, continued on its death march without any help from female directors. Ms. Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” was released by Sony Pictures while the art-house division Sony Pictures Classics released “An Education” (Ms. Scherfig), “Coco Before Chanel” (Anne Fontaine) and “Sugar” (Anna Boden, directing with Ryan Fleck). Universal Pictures has Nancy Meyers’s “It’s Complicated”; its specialty unit Focus Features has no female directors.
Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, meanwhile, did not release a single film directed by a woman. Not one.
Feeling queasy yet? Resigned? Indifferent? A little angry? The usual line on Hollywood is that it cares only about box office, which is at once true and something of a convenient excuse. Money makes the movie world go round, sure. But there are exceptions to this perceived rule, as some of my favorite male directors, including Michael Mann, have routinely proved with various box office disappointments. Released in 2001, Mr. Mann’s “Ali,” a well-regarded if not universally beloved biography of Muhammad Ali with Will Smith, brought in nearly $88 million in global receipts. (The production budget, partly paid for by Sony, was an estimated $107 million.) The next year Ms. Bigelow’s independently financed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a submarine adventure movie with Harrison Ford, was released to solid reviews, raking in just under $66 million globally (with a $100 million production budget).
What did a $22 million difference in box office mean for the directors of “Ali” and “K-19”? Well, Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when she began “The Hurt Locker,” a thriller about a bomb squad in Iraq that was bankrolled by a French company and is said to cost under $20 million. For his part Mr. Mann directed “Collateral,” a thriller with Tom Cruise, for Paramount and DreamWorks (with a budget of $65 million and global box office of more than $217 million), and “Miami Vice,” a reimagining, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, of Mr. Mann’s popular 1980s television series. Paid for by Universal, that movie cost $135 million and is considered a disappointment with about a $164 million worldwide take.
I imagine there are a host of reasons why Mr. Mann has been able to persuade executives to keep writing such large checks. He’s a dazzling innovator, and big stars keep flocking to his side, despite his reputation for difficulty. But Ms. Bigelow is one of the greatest action directors working today, and it’s hard not to wonder why failure at the box office doesn’t translate the same for the two sexes.
I hope the big checks keep coming for Mr. Mann. But I also hope that the money people, including Ms. Bullock, whose production company actually makes hits, like “The Proposal,” start giving female filmmakers a chance to do something other than dopey romances. (Good romances would be a nice start.) Every so often a new female filmmaker grabs the spotlight — remember Kimberly Peirce, the director of “Boys Don’t Cry”? — only to sputter and fade. If you have ever wondered what ever happened to Susan Seidelman, Penny Marshall, Martha Coolidge, Amy Heckerling, Nancy Savoca, none of whom had the career they should have had, you’re not alone. Come back, Barbra, we miss you! But does Ms. Streisand, who was never nominated for best director, miss Hollywood? I doubt it.
This isn’t just about money, or even male sexism. There have been women running studios on and off since 1980, when Sherry Lansing became the president of 20th Century Fox. But trickle-down equality doesn’t work in Hollywood, even when women are calling the shots and making the hires, as they presumably did a few years ago, when four out of the six big studios were run by women. Fat good it did the rest of us. Now, there’s just Amy Pascal, a co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. In the 1990s Ms. Pascal made movies like “Little Women” and “A League of Their Own.” In recent years, however, Sony has become a boy’s club for superheroes like Spider-Man and funnymen like Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow.
It’s hard to know why women have fared so badly in Hollywood in the last few decades, though any business that refers to its creations as product cannot, by definition, have much imagination. The vogue for comics and superheroes has generally forced women to sigh and squeal on the sidelines. Even the so-called independent sector, with its ostensibly different players and values, hasn’t been much better, as we know from all the female directors who have made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival only to disappear. New digital technologies and the Internet have leveled the field — though usually it seems as if it’s sheer grit that pushes filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) along the hard road from idea to distribution.
In 1920 an American actress turned director named Ida May Park published an essay for a book titled “Careers for Women,” in which she warned other women about her chosen path. “Unless you are hardy and determined,” she wrote, “the director’s role is not for you. Wait until the profession has emerged from its embryonic state and a system has been evolved by which the terrific weight of responsibility can be lifted from one pair of shoulders. When that time comes I believe that women will find no finer calling.”
There are women who would agree with Park’s conclusions, or would if they could get the chance to direct. The problem is, 90 years later, women have advanced while much of the movie industry has not.